Monday, June 27, 2005

The Cree Syllabarium

The Cree syllabary was invented by James Evans and has been used ever since by the Cree, Inuktitut, Oji-Cree, Ojibway and many other First Nations of Canada. Evans' writing system was invented some time between 1837 and 1841. In 1837 Evans took his Ojibway Speller and Interpreter in Indian and English to New York City to be printed.

This is a sample of text of the earlier Roman orthography taken from the speller at the Victoria University library in Toronto.

Uu-nend dus e-geoô u-ne-mo-sug ne-duu-nes-guu-de-
ze-oug, gu-ea oee-duu-goun-ga-oug, gu-ea uu-nend
dus e-geoô gr-je ne-bouu-guu-oug guu-oeen oee-duu-
Words are divided into syllables by hyphens. I was able to observe Cree speakers, 15 years ago, still using a Roman orthography in an informal way that also broke words into syllables using hyphens. It was not unlike the orthography for Potawatomi seen here and discussed in my post on Potawatomi.

Evans' was using a time honoured and popular method of writing when he used hyphens to mark off each syllable, and arranged the syllables in tables to teach literacy in his speller of 1837. However, in 1841 he presents a system of syllables written with completely novel glyphs or character shapes.

In 1841 this copy of the Cree Hymnbook was printed from Evans' own press in Rossville, Manitoba. Sometime between 1837 and 1841 Evans was inspired to represent the syllables with a distinctive set of symbols.

It happens, however, that the Cree Syllabary belongs to a family of scripts based on the shape of the symbols. The Ramseyer-Northern Bible Society Museum Collection at the University of Minnesota Duluth has a display of bibles in "Constructed Alphabets." Three out of six of these scripts bear a distinct resemblance to each other: Moon, Pollard and Chippewyan (Ojibway).

The Pollard script was invented in 1905 and it is known that Pollard emulated Evans in using similar shapes and in representing syllables, although this was done on an entirely different principle.

The Moon Code, as it is known, was invented in England in 1843 by William Moon who was himself blind. The Moon code was a full alphabetic orthography in which each symbol stood for a letter of the Roman alphabet. However, is is taught by organizing the symbols into an arrangment of similar shapes. In organization these two illustrations, first, A Simplified Alphabet, and Moon Code in Groups bear a uncanny similarity to the original Cree syllabary.

Careful scrutiny reveals that Evans also retained the same order of the shapes, in the p, t, c and m series as the Moon system.

However, the problem remains that Evans invented his system between 1837 and 1841 and Moon between 1841 and 1845. While Evans in Canada preceded Moon; Moon, in England was blind.

One answer is to look at the larger family of scripts being developed for the blind in England around that time. Moon's script was extremely popular and remains to this day an alternative to Braille. The other systems are less well-known.

Tiro Typeworks displays two forms of writing for the blind, by Frere and Lucas, that were published around 1837. We do know that Moon met with Frere in 1841 to discuss writing system design for the blind. This article indicates that the notion of orienting a symbol in different directions, in either a north, south, east, west configuration; or in a north-west, south-west, south-east, south-west orientation was already a design feature of these systems.

We may never know exactly which system inspired James Evans but we can at least be sure that he was tapping into an already recognized and accepted set of design principles, both in his representation of phonology as syllables, and in his selection and organization of symbol shapes.

Of these related systems Canadian aboriginal Syllabics (Cree Syllabary), Pollard (A-Hmao) and Moon are all still in present use.


Blogger Dmitri said...

Thanks for Moon. Still confused about Pollard. Still, the phrase "We may never know exactly which system inspired James Evans but we can at least be sure that he was tapping into an already recognized and accepted set of design principles" leaves me confused. It seems hardcore brahmi for most of the time, and observed as historical Brahmi scripts (some symbols change position, especially triangular 'e'). Evans is also said to have derived ideas for chars rotation from Pitman shorthand. True? Metta, DM

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